Participants took the virtual wheel for about a half-hour twice in two weeks along a monotonous, non-threatening and predictable drive in two-way traffic.
Researchers monitored heart rate changes at five-minute intervals and assessed the drivers’ car-following behavior as they adjusted to the changing speed of vehicles ahead of them. Drivers also were asked to report levels of arousal (feeling energized, bored, fatigued or sleepy) while on the road.
The result: Neither the presence of music nor its volume had any ill effect on the drivers’ ability to properly follow the car ahead of them.
What’s more, those who drove with music responded faster to changes in the speed of the car ahead than those driving without music. And the louder the music, the faster the response.
Music also seemed to enhance drivers’ energy and arousal, helping to alleviate boredom without siphoning off critical driver focus, she found. Louder music prompted more energy than moderate-volume music, the research showed.
Nonetheless, it is cautioned that music may have a different impact under more strenuous driving conditions and might even be distracting in a hectic environment. Also, older drivers might react differently than the young adults she tested, and trips longer than 30 minutes might elicit different responses.
Dr. Karen Sheehan, an attending physician in the department of pediatric emergency medicine at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said the findings are inconclusive regarding music’s impact on driving safety.
“From an injury-prevention point of view, I’m not sure if the study answers the question as to whether it’s good or bad to listen to music when driving,” said Sheehan, who also is medical director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago.
“There are some limitations to the study. It’s a driver simulation versus driving in the real world, so I’m not sure how well these findings would translate into a real-life situation,” she said. “And, overall, I’m just not sure that there is enough information here to recommend listening to music when you drive.”